Rickey's foresight shapes game for generations

Rickey's foresight shapes game for generations

Rickey's foresight shapes game for generations
LOS ANGELES -- Blessed with a keen intellect, an armload of degrees and a burning desire to make a difference -- along with a buck or two -- Branch Rickey could have been many things: lawyer, legislator, professor, titan of industry.

What he became was a visionary, using all of his many talents to change and shape American society on a grand scale alongside the incomparable Jackie Robinson.

In the sweeping scope of Rickey's remarkable life, no individual brought more meaningful innovations to baseball than the devoutly religious gentleman from Ohio.

Rickey is identified primarily as the man who integrated Major League Baseball, carefully selecting and grooming Robinson -- a bright educated, multisport star at UCLA -- to drive through baseball's color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The unwritten division had existed since the 1880s, barring hundreds of qualified athletes from the game's highest level.

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As Dodgers president, in partnership with principal owner Walter O'Malley, Rickey's master plan succeeded beyond his fondest dreams. Robinson, with his charismatic presence, surpassing skills and flaming spirit, led a charge that brought new life and energy, along with true, legitimate meaning, to the national pastime.

With an economy of words, Robinson once summed up his feelings about Rickey: "The thing about him was that he was always doing something for someone else. I know, because he did so much for me."

An imposing presence with the articulation and command of the attorney he studied to be at Ohio Wesleyan University and the University of Michigan, Rickey inspired an almost evangelical devotion in his followers.

One of his protégés, Al Campanis, always referred to him as "Mr. Rickey" and quoted the great man on a daily basis.

"As Mr. Rickey used to say," Campanis would inform anyone and everyone, "'Luck is the residue of design.'"

There will be eternal debate over what motivated Rickey -- financial gain or philosophy -- to take on the establishment and bring an African-American talent into the Majors for the first time with his signing of Robinson in 1945.

Rickey frequently spoke about the injustices he saw in the treatment of a black college teammate, and he expressed his general view of the tenor of the times in no uncertain terms when he made the monumental decision to recruit Robinson out of the Negro Leagues.

"Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports," Rickey said, "and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game."

Underscoring his beliefs, in the wake of Robinson's courageous breakthrough season in 1947, the National League -- getting a jump in tapping into the deep reservoir of African-American and Latin-American talent -- dominated the American League in the All-Star Game for decades.

Following Robinson's signing a year later with two more black players who would have huge impacts -- Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe -- Rickey set in motion the beginnings of the first real America's Team.

African-Americans rallied in support of the Dodgers, who have remained in the hearts of millions of fans across the land ever since.

Apart from the Robinson signing, Rickey's innovations were numerous, his impact profound.

In St. Louis, Rickey forged an extensive farm system with the Cardinals. "The Mahatma," as he came to be known, grasped that the best -- and most financially viable -- way to build and maintain a strong club was by signing and developing your own talent.

The Cardinals flourished through the 1930s and '40s with early products of Rickey's system. He brought that philosophy to Brooklyn, building a second powerhouse through the maturation of young talent.

When Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail enlisted in the Army after the 1942 season, the Dodgers hired Rickey -- MacPhail's good friend -- to replace him as president and GM. This ended Rickey's run of more than two decades with the Cardinals.

In 1948, Rickey opened the doors to "Dodgertown" in Vero Beach, Fla., introducing the idea of a Spring Training camp where hundreds of players would compete for jobs. It was the embodiment of Rickey's College of Baseball ideal that he'd carried for years.

At Dodgertown, Rickey brought into training camp batting cages, pitching machines and batting helmets -- all new ideas.

A year earlier, showing he was decades ahead of his time, Rickey hired Allan Roth as a full-time statistical analyst. Reviewing the material, Rickey became a proponent of on-base percentage as a significant measure of value. Roth's findings also led to the practice of platooning, demonstrating the impact of splits.

Owing to the success of his farm systems, two of the game's most successful franchises would carry Rickey's imprint for years. It was estimated that by 1950, three out of every seven Major Leaguers had been nurtured by the Cards and Dodgers.

Dodgertown became the model for future Spring Training sites in Florida and Arizona.

The two areas in which Rickey did not excel were as a player -- he was a catcher with an erratic arm and a weak bat for the St. Louis Browns and New York Highlanders for four years -- and as a manager with the Browns and Cardinals for 10 seasons. He deduced that his place was upstairs, behind closed doors in management, and no one ever had more impact in that arena.

His most important and enduring act came on Aug. 28, 1945, when Rickey signed Robinson to a Minor League contract. Two months later, it was announced that Robinson would join the Montreal Royals of the Triple-A International League for the 1946 season.

Robinson was the batting champion, driving his team to the league title. Rickey underplayed how Robinson figured in the parent club's plans for 1947, but it was soon apparent where this was leading.

At the start of the 1947 season, Robinson was elevated to the Dodgers' roster and opened the season at first base on April 15.

Under unimaginable pressures, Robinson proved he belonged with a brilliant season, ending in a World Series taken by the Yankees in seven games. A brave new world was unfolding in baseball.

In 1950, O'Malley purchased Rickey's share in the Dodgers for $1.05 million. Rickey moved to the Pirates as their general manager and set about building yet another club from the ground floor up.

Most significant among Rickey's achievements with the Pirates was his Rule 5 Draft selection of Roberto Clemente off the Dodgers' roster when Brooklyn was unable to hide the great Puerto Rican talent in the Minors.

With Clemente leading the charge, the Pirates would win the 1960 World Series. Fortified by contributions of numerous Latin-American and African-American performers, Pittsburgh remained a force in the NL long after Rickey's health forced his retirement in 1955.

A public speaker in his final decade, Rickey collapsed during a speech in Columbia, Mo., commemorating his election to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, and never spoke again. He died a month later on Dec. 9, 1965, at age 83.

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee as a contributor in 1967.

Rickey left behind countless aphorisms for his many followers to keep alive. One in particular seems especially meaningful:

A baseball box score "doesn't tell how big you are, what church you attend, what color you are or how your father voted in the last election," Rickey said. "It just tells what kind of baseball player you were on that particular day."

In his autobiography, "I Never Had it Made," Robinson wrote of his reaction to Rickey's death: "I realized how much our relationship had deepened after I left baseball. It was that later relationship that made me feel almost as if I had lost my own father. Branch Rickey, especially after I was no longer in the sports spotlight, treated me like a son."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.